e. j. wang

On relative transcendence

But it was the machine in her that was dreaming of caresses…

— Sartre

If you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, a mental state characterized by extreme focus and productivity. Flow is a state of self-unawareness where mind and/or body are completely engrossed in the ongoing execution of a task. It often brings with it an improvement to performance on the task and an apparently limitless supply of energy.

By all accounts, flow is a pleasant sensation. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. A cow is in flow. An ant is in flow. If a blade of grass could think, it would certainly be in a constant state of flow. Flow is nothing special. What really distinguishes man is that he is conscious of being man. He is conscious of himself as a political animal; he can reflect on his goals and modify them. Flow precludes all of these. Hence it is a dangerous thing.

Flow is an ideology. The state of mind it describes is real; it’s part of a more general way of being known by other names as the Dao or as ready-to-handness. But flow is not the whole of this way of being. It is the part of it that is busy and hyperactive; it is the part that helps you attain some abstract idea of “productivity.” Thus, unlike ready-to-handness, flow is surrounded by an array of life coaches and self-help authors who urge you to give in, to let go of your pesky forebrain and just “do what puts you in a state of flow.”

Let me put my critical theorist’s hat on for a second: that’s terrible advice. It’s a solipsistic way of thinking that puts immediate, individual pleasure above all other goods. And not just any immediate pleasure — a pleasure taken in executing the role assigned to you by others. Living your life in a way that maximizes flow is an ideology (in the literal, Marxist sense) of the professional class. And as an ideology, it serves the same pacifying function as Stoicism — only for office workers, not galley slaves.

If you are looking for an ideal way of being in the world, look elsewhere. Look to the Dao, if you will. Or look as far away from flow as you can.

What’s the opposite of flow? Self-awareness, contemplation, struggle, hesitation. Subjectivity. Value rationality. Aufklärung. Rodin’s Thinker. Kahneman’s System 2. Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. How are we to understand this constellation of intensities more precisely? Let’s consider three examples.

  1. In a state of flow, we are playing a clearly-defined game with a relatively clear set of moves. In a state of struggle, we are playing a poorly-defined game where most of the moves have yet to be invented. Still, an answer must be provided. The narrative of your life is decided by answers to hard questions (what do I want in life/how do I get it) far more than by answers to easy ones.

    If it is by our free will that we have the power to shape ourselves and our lives, then our true essence as human individuals lies in the series of decisions we make. Man is fully conscious, fully man, when thinking hard and making hard decisions. And it can be argued that an easy decision is not much of a decision at all; insofar as a decision is the resolution of uncertainty, there must have been some uncertainty to resolve in the first place for a decision to occur.

  2. How long would it take for you to give a stranger a high-level description of everything you did in the last week? If you are a factory worker and you have a strict daily routine, you could get away with describing this routine and listing the small deviations to it that happened each day of the week. If you are a restless billionaire playboy and you don’t know what country you’ll be in in twenty-four hours, the description could be a good deal longer.

    In a certain sense, the answer to this question reflects a fundamental quality about what kind of life you live. A week that could be summarized in a single paragraph may be mind-numbingly dull, but a week the length of a small novella may be taxing to the point of exhaustion. And at the end of the day it is factory workers, not restless billionaires, who experience flow.

  3. A commonly-noted feature of flow is that time passes quickly for those experiencing it. Tennis is a good example. For an experienced tennis player, a match goes one way, then another, then it ends; for a player new to the game, the same match can last for ages. Why’s that?

    The experienced player’s expectations are calibrated to the way the game works. The new player’s expectations are not. Hence the new player’s expectations are destined to be violated more often; he forms more memories, and in his memories, the course of the game seems to drag on and on. The speed of subjective time is exactly the rate at which expectations are violated.

The resolution of uncertainty inherent in each decision is precisely the definition of information. The fundamental quality of a life reflected in the length of its description is the rate at which information is generated, or its entropy. And the rate at which one subjectively experiences time is the amount of information needed to span expectation and reality, or one’s cross-entropy.

These are all information-theoretic concepts. And what I am driving at with them is this: that man’s natural element is difference. He lives insofar as he generates information. The more information he has generated, the more he has lived. And the more quickly he generates information — the higher his entropy — the more he is alive.

The problem with flow is precisely that it is a low-entropy state of the human will.

Entropy is considered a measure of randomness. Randomness is plentiful in disorder. Hence entropy is often considered to be a measure of disorder. But this does not seem quite right. Disorder is the natural state of the universe. Matter tends toward it, and life strives away from it. If we are going to connect higher consciousness to entropy, we would seem to imply that this consciousness is attained when man ignores his biological instincts and gives in to the heat death of the universe.

Would that it were so easy. This argument is flawed because it turns on an incomplete understanding of randomness — an understanding that grasps its properties but not its essence. It is true that randomness permeates the universe. It is true it is cheap and in plentiful supply. But these facts do not imply that it is easy to create.

What is randomness? It is relative transcendence. A phenomenon is random relative to a certain observer if that observer cannot predict its behavior. This is the view from computational complexity theory, where a sequence is “random” relative to the class of, say, polynomial-time algorithms if no polynomial-time algorithm can observe the sequence for as long as it wants and then predict its next term.

The physical universe is not random to the human mind unless you look too closely. Experience and evolution teach us a number of heuristics: that thrown objects travel in parabolic arcs, that objects at rest tend to stay at rest, that heavier objects seem to fall faster than lighter ones, and so on. We all have fairly accurate models of how the world works.

To this part of our mind that understands physical behavior, the behavior of animals is a complete mystery. And if we were lobotomized in such a way that we could understand the world only through classical physics, what we would see in animals would be quite odd indeed. We would simply accept that the natural world consisted primarily of inanimate objects, but that scattered about it were certain other objects randomly — yes, randomly — jerking to and fro without an external force to act upon them. Our lobotomized selves may read in a book that free will is a myth, that everything in the universe is predetermined by physical processes. That’s absurd, we may retort. What about animals?

But we do understand animal behavior, because we are animals. We cannot predict it perfectly, but we can predict it a quite well. We understand desire and action as simply as we do force and velocity, albeit with a different part of the mind. So what remains random to us? What process remains unpredictable, effectively undetermined by its surroundings, even when we apply the best of our understanding? What in our world sits beyond the edge of our computational power? Not stasis, nor action, but thought itself.

Thought has difficulties thinking about itself by any means other than through itself. The halting theorem tells us this. Entropy appears in thought when it aims beyond its experience, when it truly cannot predict where it is headed. By definition, there is no pattern to recognize, no fixed procedure to follow, no heuristics or shortcuts. Entropic thought is always overcoming itself. It can only be predicted by doing it or having done it.

In each person’s mind there is an entropic frontier, a thicket of unanswered questions sitting right at the edge of understanding. These questions are the most difficult and most important questions that that person is able to ask and understand at the moment. Most spend their childhood exploring this frontier, their adolescence overwhelmed by it, and the rest of their adulthood trying to get as far away from it as possible.

It’s an understandable posture — entropy is tiring. At a certain point, you might have to stop pushing your thought beyond yourself and get on with your life. You might have to take what’s expected of you for granted, to start sharpening your skills, to settle into a daily routine. And when you do give up, and when the days start to blend together and surprises are few… well, there’s always flow.